State of the Island: Mayor Drew Laughlin
31 Jan 2012
In general, what are the biggest challenges facing Hilton Head Island right now?
The biggest challenge is overcoming the effects of the longest, deepest recession our country has experienced since the Great Depression. We are not alone in facing this challenge. However, a healthy real estate market and availability of credit are particularly important to a community like ours, where so many are dependent on the real estate industry for their livelihood. Real estate sales not only support Realtors; they directly support financial institutions, mortgage brokers, property inspectors, appraisers and lawyers, among others. And, because real estate is such a big part of our economy, few among us are not—at least indirectly—affected. The economy also impacts our hospitality industry and our ability to attract the private investment we need to maintain a built environment and amenities that will attract visitors and future residents.
Our state property tax laws that place a disproportionate burden on second homes and investment properties also have negative effects on communities, like ours, that have historically sought to market second homes and investment properties, and which are seeking investment to upgrade commercial centers and accommodations.
We also need a solution to the critical need to dredge Harbour Town Yacht Basin and South Beach’s waterways. These areas must be periodically dredged, and costs and permitting issues have become issues that must be overcome.
What do you propose as a solution to these challenges?
We can’t control the national economy, but we can make every effort to be a desirable place to visit, live and work. This means taking care of our natural environment, providing quality amenities and investing in infrastructure.
To encourage private investment in the revitalization of commercial properties, we have made our development review process as efficient and predictable as possible in order to minimize uncertainty, cost and delay to applicants, and we are well into a comprehensive review and revision of our Land Management Ordinance in an effort to eliminate provisions that discourage investors without making any significant contribution to environmental and aesthetic protections. We are doing this as publicly as possible so that the word gets out that if you want to invest in quality on Hilton Head Island, the town will be an enthusiastic partner.
We need to support efforts to obtain permits for environmentally sound and cost-effective dredging of Harbour Town Yacht Basin and the south island waterways.
Is the ambitious renovation that the island has seen along the Pope Avenue corridor and on Mathews Drive be expected to spread in the coming years? If so, where would be the next spot to get such a “facelift?”
Yes. We are currently developing plans for the Coligny Beach area that would include streetscape improvements along the section of Pope Avenue near Coligny Circle and development of park space on town land. We are also developing plans for a Chaplin linear park that will allow pedestrians and bicyclists to go from Shelter Cove Harbour along Broad Creek to Chaplin Park and a boardwalk across the marsh to the ocean.
What do you foresee being the biggest growth sectors in the coming years? Should the town plan on a resurgence in tourism as the economy improves, or will there be plans to diversify?
Hospitality will continue to be a primary economic driver. We need to do what we can to attract affluent visitors and business travelers. Economic diversification is easier said than done, particularly on an island with a concern for protection of the natural environment, but there are opportunities associated with education, ecotourism, healthcare and related businesses, and information- and knowledge-based industries, among other things. Town Council is currently working on creation of an economic development authority to assist in our economic development and revitalization efforts.
What will be the first steps as the land-buying program shifts gears from green space preservation to economic redevelopment? What properties are on the town’s radar for public/private partnership?
We won’t be shifting from first gear directly into fourth. As I have said in speaking to groups and in published articles, there needs to be a public discussion about the future focus of our land acquisition program and use of existing land before we make dramatic changes. Our residents have consistently supported our land acquisition program, and they are partners in the future use of lands we have purchased. We’ll still be buying land for preservation, but we should also be open to targeted acquisitions or land swaps to spur redevelopment of our commercial properties.
We typically do not announce potential land acquisitions or sales prior to or during negotiations.
What steps are being taken to preserve the natural environment on the island?
We are continuing our longstanding commitment to preservation of our natural environment. We have recently implemented a successful residential recycling program, which has not only increased recycling, but is producing cost savings and reducing truck traffic on our roads. We are working to develop a program for commercial properties. We are continuing our ongoing programs to improve stormwater drainage, eliminate septic tanks, and protect our wetlands and dune systems.
Where do you see the island in 10 years? Fifteen?
I am confident we will flourish. Experience tells us that economic conditions change, and the current economic downturn will not last forever. Our island has experienced tough economic times before and come through just fine. I am convinced that Town Council, with the support of our Town Manager and staff and our residents, will do everything in our power to promote economic vitality, spur redevelopment and enhance quality of life in our town. Our citizens are talented, educated, and accomplished, our natural beauty and amenities are second to none, and our town is financially sound. As I have said before, we have the building blocks for success. All we have to do is work together.